Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 1999
Daniel Weiss Art and Crusade in the Age of St. Louis Cambridge University Press, 1998. 279 pp.; 8 color ills.; 96 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0521621305)

The reverberations of Saint Louis’s oath to embark on his first crusade to the Holy Land were acutely felt throughout the royal domain. In examining this period, Daniel Weiss draws a connection between the iconographic program of the Ste-Chapelle in Paris (1244–48) and the Old Testament manuscript produced in Acre shortly after 1250, now in the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal in Paris (MS 5211) (8). This bold confederacy of monuments is based on the common themes of sacred kingship, holy war, wisdom, and piety that are underscored in both iconographic programs. The preeminence of David and Solomon, the importance of God’s intervention in the fate of his chosen people, and the mantle shared by Old Testament leaders, and their Byzantine and Capetian heirs all reinforce the validity of Weiss’s theory of artistic patronage of and production for Louis IX. The imperfect beauty of this study is Weiss’s comparison of such asymmetrical monuments; rarely has a richly illuminated manuscript bellied up to the bar to trade war stories with a royal chapel that housed the most precious relics in Christendom. Carefully eschewing the hierarchy of media that dogs the art of the Middle Ages, is it possible to compare the Ste-Chapelle and the Arsenal Old Testament in a fashion that transcends the “new medieval formalism”?

The first part of the book explores the construction of the Ste-Chapelle in light of the symbolic transposition of the Holy Land to Gaul (11–22). Jacques LeGoff, Joseph Strayer, Gabrielle Spiegel, William Jordan, Elizabeth A. R. Brown, and others have already portrayed the mosaic of biblical and political ideals that motivated this Capetian venture. Yet Weiss views the construction of the chapel as a foil to the “most Christian king’s” preparations for the crusade. Weiss places the Ste-Chapelle in the lineage of palace chapels from Aachen to the Capella Palatina in Palermo (22–25). But he further associates Louis’s monumental reliquary with the palace complex built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. The formal parallels with the Throne of Justice (conflated with the porch of justice) and the grande châsse that once harbored the Passion relics in Saint Louis’s chapel are carefully, if not completely convincingly, delineated by Weiss. To this architectural patrimony of the Ste-Chapelle, Weiss adds the royal chapel of the Boukoleon palace. By alluding to the chapel’s Byzantine pedigree, the Capetian monarch’s goals come into focus: he wished to rival the Holy Land with the palace complex of Paris and create a Capetian equivalent to Solomon’s palace in Jerusalem (31–32). Six weeks after the Ste-Chapelle was dedicated, Louis and his fellow crusaders departed from this second Sinai to regain the primordial Promised Land.

Surrounding the sacred relics of Christ’s Passion are stained glass images that allude to Louis IX’s devotion to the Holy Land (5). Weiss sees a parallel in the visual tactics employed in the palace chapel and the Arsenal manuscript in their goal to educate and persuade their audiences of the legitimacy of the crusades and the role of sacred kingship (212). The Ste-Chapelle program employed a type of secular typology that served as a rehearsal for Louis’s crusade by providing a mirror of just kingship drawn from Scripture; the crowning effect was to convert the chapel into a symbolic launchpad for the new soldiers of Christ. The stained glass program, which features scenes from Genesis through Judges on the north and south walls; the Incarnation and Passion in the chevet; and culminates in the history of the relics of the Passion and the Apocalypse in the west rose, is territory well traveled by medievalists (46). In the quatrefoils along the dado, the painted fate of numerous martyred saints enrich the meaning of the royal chapel; these martyrs are joined by the apostles manning the piers to reinforce the glory of a Christian death in the eyes of the French king (39). The pictorial choices in the Ste-Chapelle glass stress the importance of royal anointing, genealogy, sacred authority, and the defense of faith against idolatry (48). It is not surprising to find such close parallels to this cycle in the Moralized Bibles in Toledo and Oxford, the Morgan Old Testament picture book, and the Saint Louis Psalter (47). As Alyce Jordan found in her study of the Ste-Chapelle glass, the mode of narrative employed in thirteenth-century literature utilized similar principles of amplification, repetition, and symmetry to make past events resonate with present experience.

Though other scholars have stressed the connection between Louis IX’s presence in the Relics window and the fulfillment of biblical history in the Capetian era, Weiss offers a more specific link between Louis and Solomon. Both were “just” rulers, both were temple-builders (55). But epithets for wise rulers such as the New David, the New Moses, and the New Solomon were as common as dubbing a church a New Jerusalem, or a New Temple of Solomon. What made the Ste-Chapelle the true heir of the palace complex on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Stephen Murray has found similarities in the measurements of the two royal plans, while Michael Davis has placed the throne of Solomon in the latter’s palace compound—findings that would seem to endorse Weiss’s Solomonic reading of the Ste-Chapelle (56–65). But Weiss invests the Passion relics in the grande châsse with even greater symbolic and literal weight, by citing not only the cost of the reliquary, but also the bonds that link the Old and New Testaments with Solomon, Christ, and Louis IX (66). Weiss contends that the covenant between God and the Jews, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, was renewed by the Capetians’ possession of the relics of the Passion within the ersatz throne of Solomon (72–79; fig. 22).

The Arsenal Old Testament (MS 5211) was produced in Acre during the latter’s peak of artistic production, between 1250 and 1291 (84). Relying on the stylistic deductions of Buchtal, Weitzmann, Stahl, and Folda, Weiss sees the Arsenal illuminator drawing on French, Byzantine, and Moslem sources to create a Byzantinizing manuscript that ensures its Eastern provenance, its authenticity, and its relic-like status (191). The French component may be traced to the Moralized Bibles, particularly the Oxford example, which provided the source for over one-half of the illustrations in the Arsenal manuscript (126). The Byzantine sources, dating from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, comprised Octateuchs, Kings cycles, and Aristocratic Psalters (129–44). In unraveling the diverse strands of iconographic and stylistic dependence of this manuscript, Weiss assumes the air of a fictional sleuth, promising that the selection of motifs would ultimately disclose the meaning and origin of the Arsenal Old Testament. What is clear throughout his analysis is the preeminence of the pictorial cycle over the written text in both the sequence and division of biblical books (113–14). In rounding up the usual suspects, Weiss highlights the active role of God in the life of the chosen people, the military conquests, and most significantly, the transfer of power from Moses to Joshua, and from David to Solomon (115).

Clearly the crusaders stationed in Acre would have had a more visceral response to the holy war and personal sacrifice, and the Arsenal manuscript stressed these themes in the frontispieces to Joshua, Judges, and Maccabees as well as in the tales of Judith, Esther, and Ruth (166–67). It is particularly in the three portraits of Solomon in the Arsenal manuscript that Weiss detects references to the diverse population of Acre with images encoded with French ideas on kingship uttered in a Byzantine patois. In this way the Arsenal Old Testament emerges as French in conception, but Byzantine in style, while the Ste-Chapelle reveals its Byzantine torso beneath French gothic robes (192). The beauty of this Roman Holiday plot twist is that there are numerous monuments that could have been solicited to champion this portrait of Louis IX as a savvy connoisseur: for example, the sculptural program of the reverse façade of Reims Cathedral, the Psalter of Saint Louis, and the thirteenth century modifications of the tomb program in St-Denis.

Though Louis IX’s relationship to the Arsenal manuscript is conjectural, Weiss suggests that it was either produced for the king in Acre or commissioned by the Templars. Both the rich iconographic resources and the explicit links between biblical and Capetian kingship suggest Louis’s presence on the scene (203–4). Whether the architectural repertoire in two of Solomon’s three appearances is derived from the Ste-Chapelle seems less important than the discussion of the two monuments as complementary expressions of Louis’s religious and artistic vision of the duties of kingship. The Ste-Chapelle became the new locus sanctus because it possessed the Passion relics, ensuring that Jerusalem and Paris would be forever joined. Just as the stained glass of the Parisian chapel symbolically urged the Franks to fight the infidel, the Arsenal manuscript, produced in the shadow of the crusade and imbued with Byzantine signs, was material proof of the nobility and legitimacy of this holy war (212–13). Though art historians may not alter their evaluation of the importance of these two monuments, Weiss’s crusade for a more inclusive view of Louis IX’s artistic patronage has reframed the notion that the “medium is the message.” The themes of righteous kingship and holy war have assumed the throne of meaning in both glass and parchment.

Donna L. Sadler
Agnes Scott College